The Lynda Barry Interview

Posted by on January 25th, 2010 at 7:04 AM

You’re referring to the planned construction of giant wind-powered turbines next door to you, which I understand might force you out of your rural Wisconsin home. Can you talk about how that fight is going and how it has affected your opinion of wind power as an alternative energy source?

The issue of reducing CO2 emissions is so serious that we just don’t have the time to fall for a fake solution, and what most people don’t know is that industrial-scale wind power is the only renewable energy choice that has little or no effect on reducing current CO2 emissions. Our own National Academy of Sciences came to this conclusion a year ago — not that anyone is listening to them.

The reason is because machines that are 40 stories tall with blade spans wider than a 747 require a lot of electricity to operate. Most people don’t know that wind turbines must be powered by a conventional power plant or they can’t function. Unless the wind is at least 10 miles [an hour], they can draw more electricity than they produce. Because the wind is unreliable and because conventional power plants are never powered down in response to the wind’s fluctuations, the same amount of CO2 is being released. The turbines can generate electricity, that’s true. But the more turbines you put up, the more conventional power you need to support them. In Germany, which has a lot of industrial wind turbines, they’ve built many more coal-fired plants. Not a single thermal-powered plant has gone off-line anywhere in the world because of wind power.

Although smaller, on-site turbines that directly power a home or farm can work, the industrial-scale turbines are notoriously inefficient. When you hear a wind developer say 10 turbines are enough to power 5,000 homes, what he’s leaving out is they could do that if they were operating at capacity. Even the wind industry admits that at best, they generate less than 30 percent of capacity. In Wisconsin, where there is low wind resource, they generate about 17-20% of capacity. And they can only power homes when the wind is blowing.

From “The Three [Thousand] of Us” in What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

So why the rush toward wind if it doesn’t work? Most people have no idea that it doesn’t work. Most people have only seen large turbines on TV or in ads in magazines, always a blue sky in the background, green grass, maybe a cow or a kid with a kite, but no houses anywhere, no wires, no cables, no access roads, no transformers, no power lines, no deforestation or fragmentation of natural habitat, just this “magic” machine spinning.

Well, of course, the power companies like it, because there is no customer loss [as there would be] from smaller on-site generation that actually works. Also the contracts with landowners are good for between 30-60 years and include all sorts of things in them that farmers are not aware of, like the right to run new transmission lines anywhere on the property. There is a huge push for “upgrading the grid” which means more and more power lines. But, at least to me, the grid is the problem. On-site generation of power, or community generation of power, is the direction we should be going. There are so many other great options, but none of them keep money in the pockets of the big power companies like big wind does.

And then there are those incredible production tax credits which every corporation needs, and the tax credits can be sold and transferred. And then there are those carbon credits, which are the most heartbreaking of all — the get-out-of-jail-free cards for polluters, unregulated, traded on Wall Street and invented by Enron.

The worst thing is the impact on wildlife. Right now there is a push to site industrial wind turbines in national parks, national wildlife refuges and other protected wildlife habitat. On the East Coast, ridge tops are being deforested to put up turbines. They are commonly put up in migration corridors because that’s where the wind is. The recent findings on how they kill bats — the bats’ lungs expand and fill with blood when they encounter the pressure drop in the wake of the turbine blades — that alone is a nightmare.

I’ve made some little videos about the bats and the turbines along the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge here in Wisconsin. You can see them here: one, two. I run a website about it at

That we will lose our home when the turbines are built 1,000 feet from our door is the least of the problems. Kevin and I will lose a lot, but we can move. Birds and bats cannot. And the habitat being destroyed to put up turbines can’t be replaced. It’s going on all over the country. By the time people get the real picture of what this is about, it will be too late. We’ll be stuck with the SUV of renewable energy.

I’ve been called a lot of names because of speaking up about this, I started to keep a list — my two favorites are “wind-jihadist” and “victim of turbine envy.”

This is our Best of the Year issue, which, besides having this marvelous interview with Lynda Barry and a jaw-dropping cover by Lynda Barry, will have various lists of the Best of 2008 by comics professionals and Journal contributors. You just went through that process of choosing the comics to be represented in the recently published third volume of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics series. What was that experience like?

Man, every comic I read for the Best American Comics stood out to me. It was hard to pick the few I was able to put in the book. And then there was the nightmare of who I forgot to put in the book. My greatest regrets are not including work by Patrick McDonnell (Mutts), Keith Knight (K Chronicles), Ruben Bolling (Tom the Dancing Bug) Heather McAdams, Jules Feiffer, Mark Alan Stamaty, Stan Mack, even just writing these names makes me sick, because I know tonight I’ll lay in bed and the list of more people I forgot to mention here will start scrolling down over the inside of my eyelids again and torture me some more. I really, really regret not doing a better job. I revolve like a gas-station hot dog on a spit over that regret.

From “The Little Women” in What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

One thing I did not like about the Best American Comics guidelines is that no single-panel comics are eligible. That’s automatically leaving out a lot of great cartoonists. What’s that about? It really made me mad the way snobs in junior high school made me mad with their rules about who can sit at their lunch table and who couldn’t. No comics or cartoonists should be ever excluded, for any reason, including Bazooka Joe comics that come with my bubble gum. I regret not fighting for them. I was stupid to go along with a stupid rule. That was a mistake.

I feel bad about my inability to have gotten more superhero and action and fantasy comics and manga and daily and weekly comics in the collection. That was another failure. I don’t go along with the idea certain cartoonists have that nothing of value is going on in these type of comics and that’s another thing that pisses me off. It’s so insane. Especially considering that most of the people who feel this way were themselves shunned throughout their school years by popular kids who saw no value in them. Cartoonist snobs make me feel violent. When they are so dismissive and disrespectful of other people’s work, I always feel like socking them one in the face. That’s why I can’t drink around certain cartoonists.

Originally I had this vision of really opening up the collection to everybody. In the end I didn’t have the time or resources to do a good job. I did a terrible job of it. I live on a farm in rural Wisconsin and my access to comics is so limited I should have done more than rely on people to send me things. So even though I adore every single strip in the collection, I wish I could have do-overs. The last thing I wanted was to restrict the collection to the kind of comics — whatever they are called now — the kind that are always in such collections. I don’t even know the name of what they are. The term “graphic novel” is so terrible and doesn’t make any sense and is a snobbish term. And “alternative” doesn’t do it any more either, because mainstream comics barely exist the way they used to. I guess just “comics.” I like the word “comics” and I like the word “cartoonist.”

One last failure of mine is this: I believe if I had felt like fighting with the co-editors and publisher I may have been able to make a case for including sections of Ivan Brunetti’s absolutely brilliant book, Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice. To me, it completely qualifies as a comic book and without a doubt it was the best comic book I read all year. That it happens to also instruct one on a very good way to make comics doesn’t change that. But I was too tired of fighting about the crazy-ass rules that go with doing a book like that. So I failed there, too.

I hope one day I get to edit a book like that again. I really loved waking up in the morning and realizing my job that day and for the next few months was just to read comics. That part was heaven. That part was the best job I’ve ever had.

I just wrote an article about the precedents, both good and bad, that the Best American Comics series has set for comics in the book market. I interviewed several people and ended up praising the kinds of choices that the series has made but criticizing the compensation that it offered cartoonists. Was the question of compensation of cartoonists ever discussed between you and the editors? When your work was collected in earlier volumes, did you object at all to the amount of compensation that was offered?

This is a really good point because it does seem like a rip-off to get a flat fee and then “So long, Charlie,” no profit-sharing. The book sells because of the artists, but the artists don’t see any payoff other than that flat fee. I wish I’d thought a little bit harder about this before now, because it strikes me as quite unfair when you lay it out that way. The thing that may have blinded me to the issue is that when I was included in the first two volumes, I had the idea that it’s an honor to be selected, and if I got extra money on top of that, yay. But looking at it again, it could also be seen as a contest that you win but actually you end up losing more than you win. That’s something that should surely be looked at a little closer.

By the way, I’ve recused myself from being included in the future Best American Comics collection. It feels too weird to me to be in the first two, then editing the third, and then to keep on being included. Something seems off about that. It’s not like I was asked to be included this year, I just let them know I wouldn’t be contributing if I was asked. Seems like there should be something like term limits with these things. I have a friend who makes violin bows; he’s one of the best bow makers in the world. After you win something like three international competitions for bow-making you get a special designation that is an honor but also puts you out of competing. That happened to him. I like that idea.

From one of the chapter summaries in What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

The approach that you outline in What It Is suggests that creativity comes not from thinking about things, but from freeing the unconscious. But isn’t art usually the product of the conscious mind thinking about and ordering the raw material of experience and memories (both conscious and unconscious)? For instance, a comic-strip creator has to very deliberately negotiate a number of strictures, introduce an idea, develop it and arrive at an amusing climax in the space of an average of four panels. And although you present your own strips as the products of a naïve and spontaneous kid’s perspective, didn’t a lot of careful adult thinking go into them?

Not at all. Very little thinking things out goes into my work. And though I’m sure thinking one’s way through the making of a comic strip can work, for me it’s not very fun or rewarding, and it usually leads to a bad comic strip. Bad in the way a bad joke is bad. You get a bad joke, but instead of it giving you something it seems to take something from you.

It’s funny this idea of freeing the unconscious. I don’t think I can free it. I think it can free me, but I’m not sure I can do much to it. I think it’s plenty free and I’m kind of like its Beanie Baby. I remember when I first heard about the unconscious in high school, and I resented the idea. It sounded like baloney to me. I thought “If I had an unconscious, I’d know about it.” And then I came to accept having one, but I imagined it to be a very small thing, like a tiny strange pea-sized thing in my brain that sent out little stupid waves. As time goes on, my image of the unconscious has gotten bigger and bigger. Now I think I’m the tiny pea-sized thing inside of it. Now it seems like an ocean to me. Something huge and moving that I’m inside of. It’s a relief, actually, to think there is a part of me that maintains images in the same way there is a part of me that maintains my body temperature, and I can rely on it.

What It Is is not a narrative, as such, but it seems to be very carefully structured. Can you say a little about how you went about organizing the book?

It’s not carefully structured at all. The collages came first, with no thought of making a book or anything at all besides some collages because I like cutting things up and gluing them down and painting around them, and after awhile I noticed there was something going on, kind of a theme, something I recognized but didn’t have much of a plan for. In fact, that’s the most important part of this state of mind I’m talking about. It’s not thought up ahead of time. The direction may be, but the act of moving along happens as the thing is being made. So no pencil roughs, no outlines, no trying to figure it out unless I was actually working on the book physically. After a while, it was just like arranging furniture in a room. I made whatever I felt was missing and I took out whatever seemed to be crowding the book.

From What It Is, ©2008 Lynda Barry.

I knew I wanted to make a workbook, so that was pretty easy, because of the specific way that I teach, it’s really like a recipe and not hard to put onto the page, just like writing down a set of directions that you know by heart.

The last part of the book was the narrative part — the comic strip that is done on legal paper. I wanted so badly to find a way to tell the story without putting myself in it, I didn’t want to be a character in the book at all if I could help it. But I just couldn’t figure out any other way to do it, to tell this story that happens to all of us. We have this thing, this ability to work with images, then we lose it, and then we spend years and years trying to find it again. If we do, it’s important to know we’ll lose it again, too. That’s probably the most recent thing I’ve realized. It’s as crazy to think your ability to work with images will always be with you as it is to think your inability to work with them is a permanent state. It’s a relationship. A relationship to something that I would argue is very much a living thing. It’s not alive in the way you and I are alive, but it sure isn’t dead. It’s alive like Scrooge is alive, or Little Lulu.

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